Samantha sat back in an empty booth and sifted through the emails on her phone while on break.
Samantha stared down at her phone
“Hmm?” Aaliyah replied as she wiped down one of the tables.
“You said you’re from Los Angeles, Right?”
She hesitated, wondering where this conversation was heading. “I did. Why?”
Samantha shifted in the booth.
“Breaking news. Fernando Chavez with the L.A.P.D. was found dead in his apartment this morning.”
She stared at her blankly, her jaw agape and no words coming out. She shut her mouth and made an effort to mask the panic. Her mind spun, trying to make sense of the news.
“What happened?” Her voice wavered. She swallowed hard, pressing her damp palms to her sides.
Samantha scrolled through the article for a few more seconds. She wanted to rip the phone out of her hands to read it herself but refrained.
“Apparent suicide but they aren’t saying how. Says a toxicology report is pending.”
Chavez was dead. Dead. She silently repeated the fact over and over in her mind, willing herself to believe it.
One of the worst nightmares of her life was gone forever.
She stared out the window, trying to grasp the magnitude of the news Samantha had just shared. She waded through the emotions that flooded her. The relief was unmistakable.
As these realities slowly dawned, a heaviness lifted. As if she’d been given a gift, a prayer answered. Tears welled, and she bit her lip to still its quivering.
“Are you okay?” Samantha’s voice was quiet and laced with all the appropriate sympathy one should have in a moment like this.
What she didn’t know about the truth of the matter could fill volumes.
Aaliyah cleared her throat and straightened. “Yeah. I’m fine. It’s just shocking is all…Sad.”
Was it? This wasn’t a tragic accident, and as relieved as she felt, she couldn’t shake her uneasiness. Chavez had killed himself, but why? With everything he had going for him, she couldn’t understand it. Chavez seemed to take special interest in tormenting her emotionally since he’d come into Nathan’s life. What else could be at play? She knew nothing about him except the personal hell he’d created for her.
Aaliyah forced herself to finish the rest of her tasks, though Chavez’s death barely left her mind as she pushed through work. She was about to give in and check the news again when Samantha popped in.
“How’s it going?” She beamed in front of her.
“Almost done with this. How about you?” She said as she filled the napkin dispensers.
“I already filled the condiments for the morning shift, sorted the cutlery, swept and mopped the floors and the last of the tables were wiped down.”
“Wow, you’re on fire.” She raised her eyebrows, genuinely impressed.
She smiled broadly, and then her expression became more serious. “Have you been following the news?”
She stayed focused on her task. “No, what’s new?” She couldn’t help but ask.
“They said he shot himself. His blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit.”
Aaliyah closed her eyes, fighting the vision of what that scene must have looked like. Of all the ways to attempt to end his life, he chose the one he was guaranteed not to survive.
“Hey, I have an idea.” Samantha brightened a little. “I know this is probably the last thing on your mind, but what do you think about going out for a drink? It would take your mind off all this upset.”
“Maybe later. I should head home.” She picked up the tray filled with the napkin dispensers that she’d refilled and placed one on each table in the cafe.
“On a Friday night?”
“I have to stop by the grocery store. Plus I still have work to do around the house.”
“How about you toss some of that work my way and let me take you out for a drink. I’ll come over tomorrow if I have to.”
Aaliyah shook her head. “I don’t expect you to do that.”
“I want to. Come on, please.”
She lifted her lips. She had one thing right for sure. She could use a drink. Having someone to talk to, even if it wasn’t about her solidly heinous day, was pretty appealing too.
“Fine. One drink.”
Aaliyah scanned the bar for Samantha. Not finding her, she chose a seat beside an empty stool. She flagged down the bartender, a little too eager for a cool drink to wash away the bullshit of her day.
As she waited for her drink, the nine o’clock news played out in silence on the screens above the bar. Her heart thumped as Chavez’s face appeared, followed by footage of Nathan, presumably on the investigation. Along the bottom of the screen, the segment was captioned “L.A.P.D. Detective death still under investigation.” A sick feeling writhed in her gut. She couldn’t imagine what was still in question after Chavez’s apparent suicide. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know either. She was about to ask the bartender to change the channel when someone came up beside her.
She jumped slightly only to find Jason there offering her a tentative smile. He looked great as usual in dark blue jeans and a white graphic T-shirt that seemed to perfectly fit over the sculpted muscles beneath.
“Oh,” she said. “Hi.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you here, sorry,” She said, trying to excuse her awkwardness.
“Sam didn’t tell you I was coming?”
She shook her head, hiding her surprised expression with a slow sip of her drink. She shifted uncomfortably, as if she could feel his gaze on her, studying her reaction. She straightened and broke away from his stare, noticing the almost equally gorgeous man next to him. Tall and lean, with hazel eyes and a mop of dark brown hair, he was dressed in worn out jeans that fit his physique and a black V-neck that highlighted his sculpted shoulders and chest. His entire persona came across as casual and boyish, making him seem less pretentious than most of the people around them. He gave her a little wave.
“Aaliyah, I’m Lucas, Jason’s friend.” He smiled at her, and then Jason, raising his eyebrow a hair.
“Nice to meet you, Lucas,” She said, silently hoping the introduction went absolutely nowhere.
His gaze flashed between them. “Okay. Well, you two lovebirds have fun, okay?” Lucas patted Jason on the shoulder before he headed to the dance floor.
Jason would never admit it out loud, but Lucas was probably the funniest drunk he knew. He always danced, or tried to dance. He looked like a rag doll that was being shaken by a child.
“You look different. I barely recognized you.” He said quietly as he stared down at the beer the bartender had just delivered.
“Yeah, not exactly waitress attire…” She tugged down the hem of her dress, which barely covered the essentials now that she was sitting.
“Well, you look amazing.” He rested his elbows on the bar, circling his beer with his hand and showcasing his strong arms.
Her face heated at the compliment. “Thank you.”
There were dozens of beautiful women in the bar, and plenty of them were eyeing Jason.
Out of the masses, a cute blond bartender approached and placed a shot in front of Aaliyah.
“What’s this?” She studied the shot, it was a cloudy liquid with a cherry in the center.
“The gentleman up there ordered this for you.” He gestured to the upper level.
She looked past the man, squinting until, through the lighting and crowds of people, she settled on a man with shaggy brown hair hung in greasy strands around his face, and his clothes were torn and dirty. He sat at a high-top bar table on a platform overlooking her place at the bar. Their eyes met and he offered a small wave, a seductive expression set on his face.
She returned her attention back to the bartender. “He wanted me to tell you that dress would look great on his bedroom floor,” he said, his mouth tensed into an awkward line.
Jason shook his head and laughed a little.
“Send it back.” She waved her hand for him to go away.
“It’s paid for.” He attempted one last effort to offload the drink.
“I don’t care. I don’t take drinks from people I don’t know.”
Before he could say anything more, Lucas reached over Aaliyah’s shoulder for the shot, tossed it back and dropped it back on the counter with flare. “Damn that’s good.”
She turned her head, certain she heard her name over the noise. Dressed in a backless black top and ripped up boyfriend jeans, Samantha marched up to them. “I’m so happy you showed up!”
“Me too,” She said, immediately happy to see her face outside of the café. She looked carefree, her blond hair loose and falling over her shoulders.
Samantha wrapped her arm around Aaliyah and paused when she saw Lucas
“Hey, you.” Her eyes narrowed suggestively.
He smirked. “Hey.” His gaze lingered on Samantha. She reddened and toyed with her diamond hoop earrings.
“You guys wanna do a challenge?” Samantha asked.
Aaliyah blinked at her, confused. “What’s a challenge?”
“For example, tonight’s theme is, ‘Guess that song’. They’ll play us part of a song, and the first team to guess the correct song, title, and artist gets a point.” Samantha explained. “They’ll play us one second at a time up until ten seconds to see if we can guess right, but if you guess wrong, the other team gets a chance to answer.”
Jason looked at Aaliyah to gauge her interest and she shrugged. “I’ve never done this before, and I feel I’m not going to be very good at it, but I’ll give it a go.”
“Whatever, you’re probably a fuckin’shark.” Samantha laughed. She had clearly gotten a head start on her in the drinking department. Still, she was undeniably entertaining. If she was a character before, she’d be a downright show-stopper now.
Jason put their name in for the next table and was talking with the people playing while Samantha and Aaliyah stayed back. Samantha propped herself up on Lucas’s seat.
“So what’s going on between you and my brother?” Samantha nodded in Jason’s direction.
“Nothing’s going on with Jason. We were just having a drink while we waited for you. So don’t get any crazy ideas.” She tossed back one of the two shots the bartender had set in front of her.
“I’m just saying because he hasn’t taken his eyes off you since I got here. I know that look when I see it.”
She frowned and spun in Jason’s direction with no discretion. Their eyes met and he quickly averted them and leaned against the wall to watch the next play.
“That’s ridiculous.” She turned back to the bar and tossed back the second shot.
Aaliyah wasn’t as bad at the challenge as she’d originally thought. Despite her significant buzz, she was scoring some decent points. Samantha had partnered with Lucas, and she and Jason were ahead by one point. She leaned in for the buzzer, but before she could hit it, a hand slid across her lower back. Jason leaned in next to her, his body too close.
“I don’t know the artist.” His breath brushed against her neck and her whole body tensed. She closed her eyes a second. When she opened them, she caught Samantha looking at her with a smug told-you-so look on her face. She hit the buzzer, and both Samantha and Lucas groaned from their seats.
“Winning, 1 Buzz at a Time, do you have an answer?” the MC asked.
Aaliyah smiled and grabbed her drink, sucking up some more liver-damaging liquid through the straw. “I do. The song is called, “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinéad O’Connor.”
“That is correct!”
“Oh! I hate you both!”
Samantha pouted at them.
Jason shook his head and laughed. “Don’t hate the players, hate the game.”
“First place goes to ‘Winning, 1 Buzz at a Time’ with fifty-four points! And in second place is ‘E=MC Hammered’ with fifty-two points. That makes ‘Winning, 1 Buzz at a Time’ our winning team!” the MC cried out triumphantly.
A huge smile spread across Aaliyah’s face. “Really? Oh my God, I’ve never won anything in my life.” She turned to Jason, who hugged her hard, taking her by surprise.
She glanced nervously up at Jason. They paused briefly as a photographer took a picture of both of them.
“You can claim your prizes up at the bar.” The photographer scurried off.
Aaliyah stepped back and wobbled slightly on her heels. Jason was there, stilling her with his hand at her waist.
“You all right?”
“I’m fine.” She smiled weakly at him and took a self-preserving step away. She needed to get a handle on this situation before Jason got the wrong idea. “I think I’ve just had a bit too much to drink. I think I just need some fresh air.”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“No, that’s okay. I’ll only be a few.”
Jason watched her retreat until his eyes fixed on the man across the bar who bought her a shot earlier. The man smiled in a way Jason didn’t like and rushed up out of his seat as Aaliyah started to leave.
His chest was painfully tight. Anger was there. The teeth-gnashing frustration that only perverts like him could elicit.
“Jason, you want another beer, man?” Lucas shouted at him over the noise.
Jason turned without answering and left the table. He pushed in the crowd, hurrying to the front of the club.
Aaliyah sucked in a deep breath when she emerged from the club. The night air was cool, refreshing on her damp skin. The music was pounding away, loud and leery, outside and inside her head.
She walked around to the side alley where the dumpsters were, hoping for a little piece of mind and was relieved to see that it was deserted.
Aaliyah felt free and relaxed and for the first time in a long while she was happy; feelings such as these had become foreign to her.
As she realized this, dark feelings of dread flooded her mind. She didn’t regret that Chavez was gone, but she didn’t want to know anything more about it. She didn’t want to walk around with the knowledge that he might have died because of her and that Nathan was the one who drove him to killing himself. Was he really that intent on getting her back? His words haunt her: You’re mine. You’ll always be mine, Angeline. And if you run, I will find you no matter what. You can never escape me.
She shuddered at the thought of being found and beaten until she was black and blue.
She shook her head. Why am I even thinking about this?
A voice broke her from her thoughts.
“Hey baby doll, how about joinin’ me for a cold one?”
She gasped and spun around to find the greasy haired man from earlier. He moved to block her way and Aaliyah stopped, uncertain how to proceed.
“Huh, darlin’?” His voice was slightly slurred from drinking too much.
“No, thank you.”
A surge of panic powered her legs to carry her toward the door, but he blocked her passage again.
“I need to get back to my friends. Please—ah!”
Her back hit the wall with a thud, cutting off her words, and she suddenly found herself pinned with his body pressed to hers. The brick wall was cold and unyielding.
“Stop it. Get off of me!”
She tried to push him away but he only moved closer, palms pressed to the wall on either side of her body, caging her in.
“Come on,” he wheedled, “Let’s get a drink and talk. Then maybe after…” He ran a finger from her knee to the hem of her dress lifting it a fraction. “we can head back to my place and you can take off this little distraction.”
Every cell in her body came alive and adrenaline coursed through her like a lightning bolt. God help her, she wouldn’t be a victim again. She raked her nails down his neck, leaving bloody scratches in her wake and pushed him off with every ounce of her strength, shoving him into one of the nearby dumpsters.
Knowing she would never have a better chance than this, Aaliyah bolted out of the alley. But before she could reach the end, he caught her by the upper arms.
“So you’re feisty? I like that.”
Her shuffled her backwards and shoved her against the wall once again.
“Please, no,” she pleaded.
Then his mouth was on her, forcing his tongue past her lips.
His hands were on her, frenzied and hungry, entangling in her hair to pull her into a deeper kiss before falling to her chest to squeeze her breasts roughly, extracting a startled cry which he eagerly swallowed.He plundered her mouth, practically raping it despite Aaliyah’s feeble attempts to push him away.
He answered the weak effort with a snicker, his breath hot on her face.
Please. I can’t do this again. Please.
Then she heard Jason’s voice, like a light in the darkness.
“You need to let her go.”
The man looked over and back to her again, pulling Aaliyah closer to him. “We’re just talking,” he said through clenched teeth. “Mind your own business.”
“She obviously doesn’t want to talk to you,” Jason said. “I’m not going to tell you again. Let her go.”
At the threat, the man pushed Aaliyah aside, releasing his hold on her. He turned and took a threatening step toward Jason. “You could just run right now and you wouldn’t get hurt, boy.”
They were a few feet apart staring each other down. Jason had some height on the man, but he was thicker, stockier by nature.
“I think you’ve had a little too much to drink tonight.” Jason said. “Go home. There’s no reason to make this any worse.”
The man shoved Jason then, his slightly taller frame hitting the wall. Jason reacted immediately, throwing a punch that the man narrowly avoided. The greasy haired man let out a loud roar and bull rushed Jason. He slammed into his waist, pushing him backward like a defense linebacker. He smashed him into the wall and started throwing punches repeatedly into his side. Jason brought his right arm up and with blunt force drove his elbow straight down into his lower back, dropping him instantly into the ground.
“You can stop this,” Jason said.
By then, the man was staggering to his feet. He pulled a switchblade from his pocket, and opened it with a soft click and backed away as Jason moved forward. But the last thing Jason wanted was for this man to be able to position his feet before swinging. Jason charged. He swung the knife, but the strike was weak and Jason batted it aside before he wrapped a long fingered hand around his throat and slammed him hard against the rough brick wall.
Aaliyah glanced up and down the alley. Everyone was in the club dancing and they were alone. She struggled to breathe as the aftermath of the panic raced through her, but she kept reminding herself she was safe. Jason was here, and by the looks of it, the man didn’t have a chance. In a matter of seconds, he’d been reduced to a pathetic puddle of apologies while Jason squeezed him tighter, threatening him to make one wrong move.
“The lady said no. And if you ever lay another hand on her, you will regret it. Is this clear?” His voice was unwavering. Serious.
“Yes. Yes, definitely.” He loosened his grip just enough to slam him back, causing him to cough, clawing at Jason’s hand around his throat.
A frisson of fear ran through her. She’d never seen him so angry, not like this.
Jason finally released him. “Leave,” he ordered.
The man disappeared back into the club. Jason turned to her, his eyes full of concern.
He took a careful step toward her, his voice softer. “Aaliyah,”
“No,” she recoiled, eyes wide as she held his gaze. “Please, no. Don’t touch me, I can’t—”
He winced, his expression tight with concern and restraint. His hands fell to his sides, fisting anxiously. “Tell me what to do.”
She wanted the ivy spray painted in the wall to swallow her up and deposit her back into her bedroom, away from these people, everyone who could never understand what she’d been through. Then she heard Samantha’s voice. She hurried to join them where they stood.
“Lia. I was looking all over for you.”
Feeling weak, Aaliyah nodded silently and moved toward her.
“Are you all right?” Samantha gazed at her, her face etched with concern.
“Yeah,” She whispered. “I just want to go home.”